Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum plans monument |

Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum plans monument

John Orona
Staff Writer

Despite being a life-long locomotive enthusiast, when John Christensen moved to Nevada County nearly 40 years ago he had no hint of its railroad history.

“I didn’t even know there was a railroad around here,” Christensen said. “There was no evidence of it.”

It wasn’t until Christensen happened upon a history book in the library that he realized Nevada County had ties to the railroad industry. Since then, he’s dedicated more than half his life to restoring and preserving that history as a member of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum.

According to Christensen, now the museum’s director, it got started after the Nevada County Historical Society put out a call for volunteers to work on a railroad history preservation project in 1983. Christensen and about 90 others attended that first meeting which would become the impetus for the museum.

He immediately recognized the importance of chronicling the group’s endeavors and began keeping a journal.

“The way I looked at it was, well, this is the historical society and this is about the history of the railroad so I should be documenting it,” Christensen said.

He’s compiled decades worth of these notes, paperwork, meeting minutes and articles into a 50-chapter manuscript that details the trials, tribulations and politics of creating an all-volunteer museum from scratch.

Among the final chapters, yet to be written, is the museum’s installation of an informational kiosk and historical monument to memorialize the county’s railroad history on the grounds of the original train depot site, now Clamper’s Square, between the northbound Highway 20 off-ramp and Railroad Avenue.

The square was originally donated in 1968 by the local E Clampus Vitus chapter, an organization dedicated to historical preservation, and in 2018 rather than just restore the aging monument, the museum and Nevada City decided on a full-scale upgrade complete with railroad track installation for rail car displays.

The museum expects the installation to be complete by May 23 for the 144th anniversary of the railroad’s construction in 1876, which until 1942 ran for 22 miles between Colfax and Grass Valley.


According to Christensen, the first trains were funded and built by the business community in Grass Valley and Nevada City who needed the rails to move heavy machinery and mining equipment and products.

“The only way in here was on dirt roads and during the winter everything turned to mud,” Christensen said. “It would take three days to get a wagon from here to Auburn so they needed it to haul heavy equipment for mining.”

They chose narrow gauge tracks, which are slimmer than traditional 4-foot, 8-inch tracks, because they could wind around obstructions and traverse the hilly terrain better than wider tracks that typically would need to cut through the environment.

Now Christensen and about 60 museum volunteers track down and restore trains and equipment from that era in preservation projects on display at the museum. He utilizes a network of railroad societies, museums and other enthusiasts to locate and acquire the growing collection and even snaps photos of other museums’ parts and inventory to cross reference later.

“I’m always scouting,” Christensen said. “I just love trains, I always have.”

Feb. 11: This article was updated to correct the spelling of Mr. Christensen’s name.

To contact Staff Writer John Orona, email or call 530-477-4229.

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March 6, 2020

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